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On a lovely day in early June, wild screams, overzealous whistling and hand clapping thundered through the cavernous restaurant. There didn't appear to be a single woman—young, middle-aged or elderly—who didn't find handsome, toffee-complexioned Houston Carrington sinfully sexy. The NBA's Texas Cyclones' power forward, a confirmed bachelor, couldn't help but smile at the wild reactions as he made his way to a reserved table inside the popular restaurant All About Appetites, an upscale eatery in downtown Houston, Texas. He was used to this.
The ladies' instant recognition of the hometown sports hero made Houston feel good. He was a man who enjoyed women of all types, shapes and sizes.
The moment the hostess seated Houston, a male waiter approached him with caution and obvious reverence. "Good afternoon, Mr. Carrington. Welcome back to All About Appetites. It's a pleasure to serve you. Interested in starting with a drink, sir?"
Recognizing the waiter's nervousness, Houston extended his hand to the young guy while reading his name tag. "Thanks, Alex. Please bring me a bottle of mineral water. I'm expecting another party, so we'll order appetizers and meals once my companion arrives."
"Right away, Mr. Carrington," Alex said, quickly backing away from the table.
Houston drummed his fingers on the table, looking back and forth between his watch and the entryway. His date wasn't late; he was early by fifteen minutes.
A bad case of nerves could knock a man off his normal course, he thought.
As Houston thought about his beautiful luncheon companion and how the date had come about, his drop-dead-gorgeous smile came easy. The first time he'd met her was nothing more than a brief introduction by a friend at a Christmas party six months ago. The second time he saw her was at a charity auction to raise money for Haven House, a foster-care home. Both sightings had remained crystal clear in his mind.
Looking like she belonged on the front cover of a fashion magazine, a stunning female, with rich, dark sienna skin, had stood to make a bid. Thick, glossy, reddish-brown hair swept her shoulders. She was clearly intent on winning the auction entry when she'd lifted her hand as high as her bid of twenty-five hundred dollars.
The fabulous-looking male being auctioned off for a celebrity lunch date was Houston's brother Austin, who was the Texas Wranglers' quarterback. The toffee-complexioned dead ringers were only two members of the Carrington triplets, who played different professional sports in front of their hometown Houston fans. The other brother, Dallas, played shortstop for the National Baseball League's Texas Hurricanes.
Houston recalled the audible gasps that had swept through the room over the amount bid. The smug look on Austin's ex-fiancée's face had quickly changed to an expression matching her evil, hateful ways. Clearly, Sabrina Beaudreaux was not a happy participant. Determined to win, Sabrina had tried topping the last bid by another five hundred dollars, but to no avail. Kelly Charleston, the stunning beauty, was not to be denied.
For the next few minutes, Sabrina and the model-type, five-foot-seven Kelly held a private bidding war. The numbers had gotten so high no else dared to bid on Austin, though the ladies thought he was priceless. Since other gorgeous bachelors were to be showcased on the auction block, some women figured they'd save their bids for then.
The next time Houston saw Kelly after the auction was at a Karamu feast held at Haven House on the last day of Kwanzaa. Each encounter was crystal clear in his mind.
Houston glanced at the entry again. With no Kelly in sight, he sat back and recalled how this luncheon had been arranged. The details were ingrained in his mind.
Austin had approached Houston. "I need a big favor."
Houston had been skeptical. "What's on your mind?"
Austin grinned. "I need you to swap places with me for the celebrity luncheon date. I don't want to hurt Ashleigh. Sabrina knew I wasn't among the celebrity auction participants when she pulled this fast one."
Houston wasn't too thrilled. "And you went along with it because the cause is too important. Haven House needs all the money we can raise, right?"
"What would you say if I told you the lady requested the swap? She says she met you at a Christmas party."
Houston nodded. "We were merely introduced. No conversation occurred between us. As for us swapping places, we haven't done that since high school."
"The beautiful lady bid on me but I think she'd like lunch with you, Houston. Please accept it. I don't want to risk losing the funds. It's all for Haven House."
Houston had agreed to take the date in his brother's stead. He could hear Austin's plea as though it was happening right now. Due to home games and the hectic away schedule, this was the first chance he'd gotten to make good on his promise.
Houston turned his thoughts from the past to the present. It was now Kelly time.
Lovely Kelly Charleston slid out of her sand-colored Porsche sportscar and handed over her keys to the valet parking attendant. She had the top up even though the June day was warm and pleasant. She didn't want to mess up her just-been-to-the-salon waves and curls. Dressed in a hip-hugging heather-gray dress, showing off all her eye-catching curves, she was a delightful and marvelous vision. The shiny gray-and-black patent stilettos added a couple inches more to her already graceful height. She was vivacious, beautiful and sexy—a total knockout.
Kelly didn't want to be late for her date with Houston Carrington, the sexy power forward for the NBA's Texas Cyclones. A pretty hostess immediately escorted Kelly to the table where Houston awaited her arrival. His breath caught, causing him to swallow hard. She looked sensational. The kind of reaction he had to her wasn't so unusual, but remaining his normal cool and aloof self in her presence might be difficult. It was the first time any woman impacted him so profoundly, and they'd only known each other a short time. Wrenching his eyes from her sexy figure wasn't easy. Ladies didn't come any more beautiful than this one.
As Kelly arrived, Houston practically leaped to his feet. Lifting her hand, he gently kissed the back of it. "We have to stop meeting like this," he teased. "You look stunning!" Pulling out a chair, he waited for her to sit before reclaiming his chair.
"Thanks for the compliment. You're quite handsome yourself," she said flirtily. Kelly wasn't worried about coming off as too forward. She smiled, revealing sparkling white teeth. "Hope I haven't kept you waiting long." Her voice was soft and smooth as silk, yet the rich, slightly husky intonation sounded seductive to him.
Houston glanced at his watch. "You're actually on time. I was a bit early."
Kelly nodded. "I like punctuality. It's a great quality to possess."
He liked her candor and self-confidence. "I agree. I'm also a stickler for punctuality. Yet I hang around with a group of guys who habitually run late."
"Good friends of yours?" Kelly asked, raising a perfectly arched eyebrow.
"My teammates. I can't tell you how often our travel plans are delayed because of tardiness. Good thing we travel on the franchise's private jet."
"Most professional sports teams do travel that way," Kelly asserted. "My friend is an air traffic controller. He only handles corporate jets and privately owned aircraft."
"Interesting gig," Houston remarked, wondering if Kelly was romantically involved with the man she'd just spoken of. His quiet thought had him annoyed. This was a first date—and by all accounts of his past history, a final one.
If Austin hadn't said Haven House might not get the bid monies unless he accepted the date in his stead, Houston wasn't so sure he'd be here.
Houston picked up two menus and handed one to Kelly. He opened his despite his knowledge of what food and dessert items were offered. "Hope you brought along a decent appetite. This place is appropriately named. My teammates refer to it as Triple A."
"All About Appetites," Kelly said on a laugh. "Cute! I like it. I was here once, but not for dinner. I came around the same time they started offering live music."
"Surprised I didn't run in to you. I love the music entertainment they bring in. My teammates and I frequent this place."
The couple quietly began discussing the menu. Kelly asked Houston questions about the entrées and he recommended several items he'd ordered before.
"The tender, juicy mesquite grilled steak and jumbo shrimp is one of the best combination entrées," Houston praised.
"I love steak and shrimp."
Once Houston and Kelly selected their meal choices, he summoned the waiter and wasted no time in making their preferences known.
As if Houston had suddenly recalled something, he snapped his fingers. "Please bring the lady a glass of white zinfandel." Austin had overheard Kelly's wine order at the auction and had passed the information on to Houston.
Kelly looked at Houston with skepticism. "How in the world did you know?"
Houston winked. "I make it my business to know." He laid his forefinger against his temple. "By the way, my brother never told me why you wanted me to come on this date versus him. Care to enlighten this old curious George?"
Color stole into Kelly's cheeks. Although she already knew the answer she pondered Houston's query, the million-dollar question swirling around in her mind.
Did Houston need to know the truth?
Kelly cleared her throat. "I bid on Austin because I utterly love to annoy Sabrina Beaudreaux, whom I hadn't seen in a while. She and I are old college roommates. The lady treated me horribly the first semester. I eventually ended up changing roommates."
"I heard there was tension between you. Members of our family felt it at the auction. We tried to accept Sabrina in our lives. Austin was going to marry her, but the Carrington family was never comfortable with his decision or with her. She was rude to us and she constantly showed an unattractive spirit of selfishness and heartlessness."
Kelly snorted under her breath. "I'm sure your family didn't see the half of it. People Sabrina dislikes, fears or is just plain jealous of are the ones who feel the full brunt of her meanness. She often made me the butt of her downright crude and unkind jokes." Kelly cringed at the painful memories.
"I'm sorry for whatever you endured." Houston closed one eye and peered at Kelly through the other, letting her know she still hadn't answered his question. "I've heard what you've said, but I'm also aware of what you haven't said. Why me?"
Amused by his persistent line of questioning, Kelly smiled softly. "Why not you?" she asked straightforwardly.
"That's what I want to find out," he said, eyeing her inquisitively. "You're the only one with the answers."
"Although Austin was the most popular male athlete on the auction block Sabrina wasn't the only reason I bid on him. I simply had a desire to check out the chemistry I felt the first time I saw you in person. So I asked Austin if he was willing to make a switch for the luncheon." She'd told Austin not to reveal her agenda, like she thought that would really happen between brothers.
The famous triplets, Austin, Dallas and Houston, born to Angelica and Beaumont Carrington, were tall, toffee-brown-complexioned, sinfully handsome, athletically built and buff beyond imagination. The brothers' sexy, athletic physiques, Southern accents, sparkling ebony eyes and silken curly hair had women all over the nation swooning. Kelly had found out she was no exception on her first glimpse of Houston.
Leaning forward, Kelly made unflinching eye contact with her date. "I find you attractive and sexy and I wanted to see if the first unbelievable reaction I had to you was real." She trilled off the sweetest, most heart-stopping laughter he'd ever heard. "It was."
Feeling good about Kelly's remarks, Houston laughed jovially. "You've hit a tender spot in my heart. The compliments are so sweet." His gaze strayed momentarily. "You're not alone in your reaction. I confess I was also enamored with you on each of our quick encounters. It's nice to share lunch with you, Kelly Charleston—very nice."
While extending her hand to Houston, Kelly felt the heat rise in her cheeks.
The meals were delivered in a timely manner. Once the waiter found out everything was to his patrons' satisfaction, he promptly disappeared.
Kelly didn't know if Houston was into blessing the food or not so she took the lead and said a short supplication. Following his enthusiastic amen, he looked up at her, approval shining in his dark eyes.
The next look Houston gave Kelly was odd. "I know this is just a celebrity charity date, but I try to let people know who and where I am regardless of the situation. As for the women I date, rarely is there a second one. Because of my profession and lifestyle, I have a lot of platonic female relationships, but I'm not the type to commit. I only date one woman at a time, but even that is never serious."
Kelly was totally surprised at Houston's pointed remarks. He'd been up-front on sharing his views on relationships, but she wasn't sure the timing was appropriate.
The look on Kelly's face let Houston know he'd caught her completely off guard. "You may think I shared too much information for a first-time get-together, but that's the way it is with me, Kelly. I'm direct and up-front, pulling no punches. Big problems arise for me when I don't lay my cards out in plain view."
Taken slightly aback by how painfully direct he was, Kelly took a sip of her drink. "It is a bit much, but only because I'm surprised by the timing. Are you perfectly clear from the jump with every woman you meet? And why aren't you the committing type?"
Houston ran steady fingers through his dark curls. "I love meeting all kinds of women, love them in all shapes, sizes and colors. My career keeps me moving at full speed. I think it'd be unfair to tie someone down, especially when I can't be there on a consistent basis. Commitments come with a certain amount of demands. I have a house but I'm also in love with a new condo…commitment is not my middle name."
"Hmm, those are interesting and commendable edicts. I like a man who is straight and to the point, yet it's unusual for stuff like this to come up in a discussion during a casual first lunch, don't you think?"
"You don't strike me as the kind of woman who kids herself. We've both mentioned our wild reactions to each other so I think the things I've said are appropriate."
Shrugging, Kelly chuckled nervously. "Put like that, I'd have to agree. How do you define yourself and manage your life as a superstar athlete? And how are things for you out of the spotlight of superstardom?"